Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

Column: Lafayette is the best of the worst — so what?

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So Lafayette is the best city in the worst state, according to the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings.

What does that really tell us? Any of these online lists need to be taken with some degree of salt. No matter what methodology they use for their scoring, there’s some amount of nuance left out. For example, their quality of life index doesn’t factor in how much more delicious gumbo is in Lafayette than in Shreveport. 

On the other hand, lists like these tell us a lot about public perception. And when it comes to the state we live in, that perception ain’t great. Louisiana ranked 50th in the U.S. News state rankings, released earlier this year. We couldn’t even crack the top 40 across any of the eight metrics it measured.

50Crime & Corrections49Economy
47Education41Fiscal Stability
46Health Care49Infrastructure
49Natural Environment44Opportunity

These numbers are not necessarily surprising, but they’re still concerning. It continues to highlight how whatever success Lafayette may or may not be having as a city, it’s happening in spite of the fact that we’re located in Louisiana.

Lafayette as a city ranked first in the state, but only 84th overall nationally. These rankings were based on quality of life, cost of living, job market, education and safety metrics:

CityOverallQuality of LifeValue
Baton Rouge5.85.66.6
New Orleans5.55.85.6
Greenville, SC6.97.07.0

I added Greenville to this list as it’s a community whose success Lafayette has sought to emulate. And the results of its investment in urban core infrastructure and coordinated public-private infrastructure have clearly borne fruit, as Greenville ranks 4th out of all cities in these rankings.

Rankings like this provide a glimpse into larger trends Lafayette faces. In this case, it underscores that our success relative to our Acadiana neighbors has more to do with their poor performance than us being particularly great.

It parallels the population doughnut I’ve described in other columns. Lafayette’s growth, on a map, looks to be driven by declining populations in the parishes around it. People go where opportunity is.

I ran across another version of that shape happening in this national analysis of distressed zip codes:

Screen grab of a a county level map showing Lafayette Parish in a pastel green but surrounded by parishes in red

These ratings were calculated based on a variety of factors, including the number of residents with a high school diploma, the poverty rate, the number of adults not working, the housing vacancy rate, the median income, changes in employment and changes in the number of businesses.

There’s Lafayette in the middle, a comfortable shade of pastel green, while the parishes around us are at risk or distressed.

Read more opinion from Geoff Daily

It’s a weird place for Lafayette’s economy to be right now. We still have fewer jobs today than we did in 2019 before the pandemic, according to the latest Louisiana Economic Activity Forecast produced by UL economist Gary Wagner. And in 2019 we were still missing thousands of jobs from our peak back in 2014.

Despite how far we’ve fallen and how much ground we’ve failed to recover, Lafayette’s still an island of prosperity compared to the rest of Acadiana and most of the rest of the state of Louisiana. In the coming year, several Louisiana metros are projected to lose jobs, according to the UL economic forecast, while Lafayette is poised to hold roughly flat.

In the short term, the state’s relative distress may actually help Lafayette. Because if you live in a poor performing parish but don’t want to leave the state, Lafayette offers one of the best places to relocate to. Recent growth in Lafayette Parish aligns with that conclusion.

But over the long term, we’re continuing to see an overall net out-migration of people away from Louisiana. And as Lafayette tries to compete for talent with other cities across the U.S., we’re burdened by the weight of the public perception connected to being located in what many consider to be literally the worst state in the whole U.S.

Even if you don’t believe Louisiana’s the worst, or you believe that living in Lafayette’s worth the price of living in Louisiana, we need to be careful about getting too proud of our position as the best city in what’s perceived to be the worst state.

There’s an opportunity here to double down on our efforts to shore up our island of prosperity, so that if the region and the state continue their downward spirals we can at least maintain enough strength to keep our collective heads above water.

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